How Does a Jewish Kid From the North Shore Became the Face of Italian Food in Chicago?
“It’s now that we try the squid ink pasta, its midnight shade beautifully stark against a pristine white porcelain dish. The tasty tension of tongue- smiting chilis, sweet crab and soft, soothing mint tops a delicate nest of hand-crafted spaghetti.”
—Michael Nagrant, Cibo Matto restaurant review, 12.28.2009
I apologize for quoting myself. How douchey! But, it was unavoidable, because it encapsulates the precise moment I became a fan of my interview guest today, chef Todd Stein, newly of Quartino, and most recently of B Hospitality, aka The Bristol and Formento’s. Ever since I took a bite of those squid ink noodles, I’ve been following Stein’s career, and as you’ll see below, I’ve also stalked his Instagram.
One of the things I’ve always loved about Stein is that he balances the creative aspects of cooking and the development aspects of the business without sacrificing in either arena. He started his career at the legendary Gordon, helped open the equally important MK where he eventually led the kitchen. He created his own magic at Cibo Matto and The Florentine. Since then, he’s spent time successfully rejiggering established concepts in Atlanta, and here in Chicago with B Hospitality, and now Gibson’s group.
Though eleven years have passed, I remember that pasta in the same way I remember Avec’s chorizo-stuffed dates or Alinea’s black truffle explosion, transformative and perfect dishes that stand above others, highlights in my long and winding dining life.
Though pasta is only made with flour, eggs, water and salt, there are those who, like a priest transfiguring a wafer into the body of Christ, somehow take those four ingredients and alchemically make something better than the parts. Sarah Grueneberg of Monteverde, Joe Flamm, formerly of Spiaggia, and Missy Robbins of NYC (which as you’ll see below ties in nicely) come to mind. Interestingly, all of those folks worked for Tony Mantuano, the OG of Chicago pasta. While Stein did not, he belongs in that class. Enjoy the interview!
You just started a new job at Quartino after four years with B Hospitality. Are you in the kitchen already?
I am. Quartino has been open for 15 years. It’s one of those places for me where I don’t eat out a lot, but it’s been one of favorite places to go. At 15 years old, this concept can be taken to a lot of other places. We’re also opening a location in Dallas. As a cool young chef, you think I want to be around food. At the beginning of your career, it’s food, food, and food. I’m still really interested in food and creating, but I find my greatest strength is building teams and developing people, and there’s a great opportunity to do that here.
The last few years instead of opening spots like MK or Cibo Matto or The Florentine, you’ve been going into existing concepts like The Bristol and Formento’s and now of course, Quartino. I’m sure some things are untouchable, like you can’t get rid of the monkey bread at The Bristol, but can you still make your own imprint?
I see restaurants as a business, so why would I ever get rid of those things that are successful? But, you can bring your own spin. I know you ate at Formento’s before me, and then when Stephen Wambach was there, his style didn’t fit with the concept, but I changed a lot of that menu and I think we were wildly successful. I feel the food needs to speak of the city and the room its cooked in, so that’s what I try to do. Like even the same carbonara on a plate at Cibo Matto is all elegant and tweezered, but you serve it in a more rustic way or a different bowl at Formento’s and it still works. Both examples are equally delicious, but they honor the idea of where you are and what the room is like.
Speaking of changing jobs, I’ve been thinking about how chefs, or most people in the restaurant industry, seem to change jobs all the time, or at least more than the general public. We’re taught to fear change, but I wonder if being a chef means you have to have, or you do have, a different mentality? Like how many jobs have you had? 30?
That’s probably the closer number. You’re right, my wife has had two jobs. But, if you’re a chef willing to get on a plane, you’re marketable as hell. Whenever I changed jobs, it was because there was something I wanted to learn. I went to Cleveland for two reasons, first I was madly in love with a girl, and I was ready to lead my own kitchen after working at Gordon and MK. After six months the girl and I broke up, but I stayed there for 5 years. I went to Minneapolis where I met my wife, and then I got an opportunity work in Vegas and see what it was like to be in a market like that with the big casinos. I told David Burke, who’s project it was, that I would do two years. With Atlanta and Concentrics, it was an opportunity to hire my own team from scratch. It was fun to lead a kitchen at MK, but the problem is the restaurant is named MK, as in Michael Kornick, so it’s always going to be his thing.
You’re saying, for you it’s easy, because you need to keep developing and moving forward?
Yeah, it’s built into my DNA. I’m a tinkerer. My mom says it’s because I’m a Virgo. I went to work with John [Ross] and Phil [Walters] at B Hospitality, because I wanted one last shot at food. Quartino’s is part of Gibsons. They have high volume, high sales, and a reputation for taking care of their employees and providing a good work and life balance for 15 years and that’s amazing.
So how does a Jewish kid from the north shore became a face of Italian food in Chicago? I have a theory it’s because of a trip to Bologna in 1995, and also because you saw your first individual success cooking Italian at Cibo Matto in Chicago.
You nailed it. In 1995 I was in Paris working at a bakery. I took the train overnight to Bologna, got off train, and thought, wow this was amazing. I was 24 years old. I was a kid. I would love to go back now knowing what I know. Eating Italian food in Bologna, I knew that Italian food was going to be important to my career. Also, one of my best friends in the business is Missy Robbins (A Voce & Lilia in NYC). When I was at MK, she was at Spiaggia. You know, it’s funny when I was living in Las Vegas, she wanted to move back to New York, and I saw Andrew Carmellini (Locanda Verde, The Dutch, Lafayette, Leuca, and Bar Primi in NYC) walking through The Venetian. I asked a friend of mine what he was talking to Carmellini about, and he said a new project. I called Missy and said I think Andrew is leaving A Voce. [Editor’s note: Robbins became the chef at A Voce after Carmellini which led to her ruling New York’s pasta scene today]
You mentioned MK, which is a legendary Chicago spot. You also worked at Gordon, which was one of the most important restaurants in Chicago history. I moved here after it was closed, but I have a framed menu of Gordon on my wall because I know how important it was. Charlie Trotter and Carrie Nahabedian worked there, and of course, the famous artichoke fritters…
Ah yes, the famous canned artichokes in tempura better!
They were canned? Ha.
Yes, but they were delicious. Trotter and Nahabedian all worked in Lake Forest, but I was in the city. My mom was an amazing cook, still is to this day, and a very large reason why I ended up cooking. My parents took us to dinner a lot. It was important, but for some reason we never went to Gordon until after my mom and dad got divorced. I remember it was special.
When I was in culinary school at Kendall, when it was still in Evanston, a career counselor came into class and said, ‘I have a job, at Gordon. Is anyone interested?’ I was the only person who raised their hand. The guy who hired me, puts me on fish and I fail immediately, and he said maybe you should work pantry. I was like, ok!
A month later, they hired Keith Korn, who foodwise, is one of the best chefs I ever worked under. You could cook his food today and think it was of this time. It was very hard working in that kitchen. We’d kill soft shell crabs and chop herbs to order, things you could never pull off today.
Korn told me that if I wanted to learn to be a chef, I need to spend all my money on cookbooks and the rest of my money going out to eat. He also said, you go to the best places to learn what they do. Michael Kornick worked at Gordon too. Kornick and David Burke are two of my biggest mentors.
Burke hooked me up with a job at a bakery in France, Moulin de la Vierge. I was at my sisters in Italy, and I called David and said I said I’m supposed to start next week, but I can’t get ahold of the bakery. David called them and told me he couldn’t get a hold of them either. He says, listen if you don’t hear back by next week, I’ll hook you up was a stage at Troisgros.
OMG! Troisgros! (Editor’s note: Troisgros is one of the most important restaurants in history. It is where nouveau cuisine took off, which influenced 90s high end cooking in America, especially at Charlie Trotters and The French Laundry. The Troisgros brothers also influenced the experimentation that happened at El Bulli under Ferran Adria)
All of the sudden, I’m like, I hope the bakery doesn’t call me! But, then I checked at home in Evanston, and there was a message from Basil, the owner of the bakery. If that call never came, it may have changed my career entirely.
Insane! So, I’ve been following your Instagram for a long time, and I have to say I admire how you live. The irony of chefs is they cook for kings or whatever the class structure is in the United States, but often they don’t get to experience the life they provide for others. But, you seem to always drinking great whiskey, smoking great cigars and traveling.
Well, we don’t have kids. It comes from my parents. They always taught us to live life, to order good wine in restaurants. All my bad habits come from Keith Korn. He said I need to know these things as a chef. He introduced me to something better than a really crappy Garcia Y Vega cigar that I smoked when I was younger. My dad is a scotch drinker. I didn’t get into bourbon until 2006. This sommelier was like you gotta try this stuff, George T. Stagg. I took a sip and that was it for me. I met the Willet bourbon folks and helped design their tasting room menu.
About that. I believe I read the Willet menu described as “Norwegian/French/Irish/Southern fusion concept”. LOL, wut?
[Master Distiller] Drew [Kulsveen] and his family are Norwegian He loves French food and wine.
I noticed maybe you were wearing a Rolex GMT in one of your pictures. Are you a watch guy? I ask, because lately I’ve become a watch guy.
There may have been a watch like that. As you know most of us in this business don’t make a lot of money for a really long time, or at all, and then all of the sudden maybe you do make good money suddenly, and that’s what happened to me. You think, there are some things I want to do in my life. I knew kids weren’t gonna be my thing. I do like watches and I have a few, but ironically, I’ve been wearing my Apple Watch mostly.
Ha. I do the same. If Rolex ever figures out how to do a mechanical step and calorie counter, they’d own a market. BTW, that reminds me, there were a lot of Instagram posts of you killing it on the Peleton, but I haven’t seen any lately. I’m worried maybe quarantine is having a negative impact?
No, actually, it’s the opposite. I’ve lost 9 more pounds since this thing happened. You know how doctors tells you stuff, and most of the time you don’t listen? My doctor told me I should lose some weight. I was 210 so I didn’t think it was terrible, but I said, what’s my ideal weight? He said it’s 173. I was like, that’s never gonna happen. But then I did Weight Watchers, cut booze, and put in the effort on the bike. It was transformative. I was sleeping better. I stopped snoring.
And you need to track that action on an Apple Watch!
I did buy the titanium version, because you beat on it more in a kitchen. I have an IWC Aquatimer, Jacques Cousteau, limited, which is last real watch I wore in March while swimming in the ocean.
Sorry I’m such an Instagram stalker, but I saw maybe you also recently came into possession of a 1950s Very Old Fitzgerald bourbon. Have you had a chance to taste it?
I’m on all the Facebook groups for whiskey, and I bought one spot for like $60 bucks in an auction and won. It’s a half pint, so when I open it, I know it’ll be gone, so I haven’t cracked it yet. When Aviary was doing the old cellar stuff, I did get a chance to try a 60s-era Fitzergald. My wife wasn’t really into whiskey and then she had some Weller Antique 107 and she said, “I really like this.” I was like, she’s humoring me, but she said, “NO, I REALLY LIKE IT.” So, she’s gotten in to that.
Good taste. Too bad Weller is disappearing everywhere. I saw this TV pilot where you traded places with a comic who became a cook while you did stand-up comedy? Were you scared?
You saw that? Did you watch the whole thing?
When I was in Vegas, a mutual friend said you gotta meet this comic, Bobby Slayton. I’m obsessed with magicians and comedians. We got along. Also, David Burke introduced me to Lewis Black and we’re friends. Slayton, said, do you know Craig Shoemaker, they’re filming at a vineyard in Napa for a week where comics become cooks and cooks become comics, would you be interested? I think they were trying to sell the idea to Netflix. I said, sure, reach out. TV is interesting. I did Iron Chef with Bobby Flay, but generally I’m past all that, but this seemed interesting.
When I got the call, I was never more fearful of anything in my life. There were like a hundred people in the audience for my stand up set and I wondered if I would remember everything and deliver. Shoemaker kept interrupting my practice and telling me I wasn’t going to be able to pull this off. I said, listen I don’t want to sound arrogant, but when the lights are on, I’ll deliver. I went second to last. It was literally out of body, but it was great. Shoemaker said, ‘You nailed it. You should do this more.’ I don’t know if I would. I was so mentally drained after.
Speaking of Bobby Flay, I know this was years ago, but you lost to him by one point on Iron Chef. I just talked to Jenner Tomaska who was on Iron Chef Masters. He lost and didn’t get to beat Bobby Flay. I’m wondering if there’s a Flay curse on Chicago chefs?
On Iron Chef, Bobby won 80 percent of the time. He just didn’t lose. It was exhausting. We shot at 6 a.m. Bobby was super nice, he asked if we needed any help. It’s literally only an hour of cooking. That part’s real. Building your career of that TV stuff is tough though.